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Merle

Merle

Equator - Miguel Sousa Tavares I was excited to find a book set in São Tomé and Príncipe, and this one started out interesting, albeit slow-paced. Unfortunately, it soon became offensive on several levels, and took much longer than I expected to finish.

In 1905, Luis Bernardo is a gentleman in Lisbon when he's called upon to spend three years as governor of São Tomé and Príncipe. The British are accusing the Portuguese of using slave labor on the islands, and threatening to boycott their exports; Luis Bernardo's job is to clean up the situation before that happens. (Note that while the international relations aspect is historical, Luis Bernardo is fictional. Unfortunately, the author does not include a note at the end explaining how much of his story was inspired by real events.)

As I mentioned, the story, while it moves slowly, is at least interesting: Luis Bernardo is immediately at odds with the reactionary plantation society, and his efforts to reform it kept my attention. It's not often that novels about slavery feature a character in authority actively trying to change things. The white male characters, including Luis Bernardo, are reasonably well-drawn; the resistance that he meets feels genuine and realistic. The islands come across fairly vividly, and the novel appears well-researched and contains interesting historical information.

But of course, there's something wrong with a novel where only the white male characters come across as fully human, and the number of -isms Tavares manages to pack into the book fairly boggles the mind. First, the women: they exist entirely as sex objects and accessories, without any development beyond that; this is particularly unfortunate with Ann, who gets a lot of page time but never becomes more than an "ample, panting bosom." In fact, there's only one woman in the book with whom Luis Bernardo does not have sex, and that's only because he doesn't get around to it.

Second, the Africans: they're Hollywood stereotypes, none of them taking important roles, even though their conditions are at the heart of the book. This is especially odd because a crucial aspect of Luis Bernardo's character is that he's the one Portuguese on São Tomé who sees and treats them as human--one wonders why the author couldn't manage to do the same.

Relatedly, there's the treatment of colonialism. Given the setting, it's natural enough for the (white) cast to support it; even the more liberal-minded Luis Bernardo is in favor as long as it's "civilizing." But things really get ugly when the omniscient narrator starts talking about India: the book states flat-out that the local people are incapable of governing themselves, the British are good colonialists who don't meddle and are doing them a service, etc. And it reverts to stereotypes, contrasting that "elemental, instinctive" country with the "civilised world where good taste and discrimination reigned." Tavares even gives us this howler: "It was arguable whether Providence had chosen Great Britain to direct the destinies of India: after all, the Portuguese had got there first and, after them, and before the English, the French." Around this point, I started to suspect that the 2003 publication date was misleading: perhaps the book was written contemporaneously with the events it describes, but published posthumously? Sadly, no. Somehow this really is a 21st century novel.

To top it off, Tavares even throws in some anti-Semitism: an antiques dealer is demonized as a "despicable Jewish trader" and the like, for the terrible crime of complaining when an item he paid a large amount of money for in a legitimate sale is publicly confiscated by the police as stolen property.

At any rate, there's a reasonably interesting story in there somewhere, but I'm not about to recommend a book that reduces most of humanity to objects. Again, this is especially unfortunate here because in the hands of a better author, these characters and this story might have amounted to something worthwhile.